The day may not be far off when part of a farmer's normal daily routine involves reviewing data and images from one of the farm's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), more commonly known as drones.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates who can fly UAVs and where they can be flown, estimates that UAVs will grow into a $98 billion industry in the next 10 years and that as many as 7,500 small commercial drones could be in use by 2018. It seems likely that a significant portion of this growth will occur in the agricultural sector.
Potential farm applications are numerous, and include using UAVs to gauge crop health, including insect or pest infestation and disease, and to monitor crop irrigation and yield. These applications would give more comprehensive information than an on-foot inspection and also allow farmers to manage crop inputs and irrigation on a more targeted or micro scale, which could lead to significantly increased yields and tremendous cost savings. However, all of these potential applications are on hold for the time being while the FAA works on developing new regulations for the commercial use of UAVs.
FAA regulations permit the recreational use of small UAVs/model aircraft that fly below 400 feet and remain in the operator's sight and control. Conversely, the FAA places strict limits on where larger UAVs can fly, and commercial use is prohibited. Congress has ordered the FAA to issue regulations and guidance for commercial UAV use by September 2015, although there are concerns that the FAA will fail to meet this deadline. As it stands, the FAA has selected organizations in six states to conduct UAV testing in order to help decide what type of regulations should be put into place to control their use.
The first FAA-sanctioned UAV flight for agricultural purposes was conducted on May 5, 2014, at a research center in North Dakota, where researches used a UAV to measure winter kill on a winter wheat field. Planned future tests include using UAVs to gather imagery from five soybean fields to see how UAVs can help in identifying problems with the crop.
On a cautionary note, the FAA imposed a $10,000 fine on a photographer who used a UAV to shoot a promotional video of a college campus. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently dismissed the fine, ruling that the FAA lacks enforcement authority over the use of drones. Notwithstanding the NTSB's ruling, farmers who use UAVs in connection with their farm business do so at their own risk until the new FAA regulations are put into place. That being said, there is no time like the present to learn more about future potential UAV farming applications or even practice "flying" with a model aircraft.
This column was originally published in Michigan Farm News on July 11, 2014.